Plant Profile: Magic Magnolias

Magnolias are wonderful small trees or shrubs, which despite their southern connections, can work as spring-flowering plants for gardens in USDA Zone 4 -- about the southern half of Minnesota, as well as areas along Lake Superior. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has a fine collection of magnolias and they are blooming right now.

magnolia1Magnolias for the north include hybrids of Magnolia stellata and Magnolia kobus as well as the native cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata). Most cultivars are small trees or shrubs, ranging from 10 to 25 feet tall with a vase-shaped form. The cucumber tree, however, grows up to 80 feet tall, and is grown primarily for its qualities as a sturdy landscape tree. (More varieties of hardy magnolias are being developed, too. Northern Gardener covered the work of Green Bay-based breeder Dennis Ledvina in our March/April 2013 issue.)

Magnolias bloom in early spring, generally from late April through mid May in the Twin Cities. The flowers appear before the leaves on the plant, and the plant can be covered with blooms in shade of cream, pink or yellow. Magnolias are natives of forest clearings, so they can handle light or dappled shade but they bloom best in full sun. They need moisture (but not too much) and prefer a slightly acidic soil. Many people plant their magnolias near the house to protect them from the wind. Avoid the south side, however, as you do not want the plant to come into bloom too early. The magnolia root system is fibrous and shallow, so dig a wide hole when planting magnolias and spread them out. A yearly application of a balanced fertilizer or mulching with compost will help feed the plant. Magnolias look stunning surrounded by early spring bulbs, such as squill, and they do well with a shallow-rooted groundcover for a neighbor.

Here are some of the best varieties for Minnesota:

'Royal Star' Bright white blooms, fragrant, this plant grows only 15 feet tall at the most and blooms early in the season.

magnolia bloom'Ann' For a cloud of pretty pink blooms, plant 'Ann'. This one will grow to 30 feet tall. It can be prone to scale and other pests or diseases.

'Jane' With pinkish purple blooms, this later blooming variety should not be planted too close to the house.

'Leonard Messel' With narrow star-shaped petals that are white on one side and pink on the other, 'Leonard Messel' is a popular magnolia in Minnesota. Some sources rate it as zone 5, so choose a protected location.

'Merrill'  Another magnolia with cream-colored blooms, 'Merrill' is known for its hardiness. A good choice for Minnesota.

Do you have magnolias in your yard?

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  1. Debra McKenzie on March 19, 2017 at 10:48 pm

    I am desperately looking for a nursery that sells magnolias that grow in zone 4. Please advise if you have a contact that would carry them.

    • Mary Lahr Schier on March 20, 2017 at 11:52 am

      Where do you live? In the Twin Cities, Bachman’s sells them, and I think many of the nicer independent garden centers. Outside of the Twin Cities, there are several regional garden centers that carry them.

      • Andrew Cullen on April 27, 2020 at 2:19 am

        Thinking of getting a a hardy Magnolia ,living around Houston Texas area. Would be planted in front yard in a 25ft open space.have other planters and flower bed . Article says they grow up to 35 ft .Will it work.( Not knowing the rest of the plants I have) or be to much .house faces south west . Area will be is sun.

        • Mary Lahr Schier on April 27, 2020 at 4:30 pm

          There are so many different magnolias you could grow in Houston compared to what we can grow in Minnesota. I would check with a local nursery to discover the best options.

    • Mary Wareham on September 29, 2021 at 3:19 pm

      Try Cross nursery in Lakeville. They are wholesale but do sell retail too.

  2. Annemieke van der Werff on April 29, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    Also, Sargent’s in Rochester, their bigger location, has a beautiful selection.

  3. Terri Nelson on June 21, 2018 at 12:03 am

    I live near the Mn/WI border and in my experience if you keep your eyes open you may find someone local who’s a reputable grower as well who sells consistently year after year…. Keep your eyes open for those little signs that say “plant sale” as your passing through those little towns on the way up north to the cabin or what not, cuz 9 times outta 10 those people tend to have what your looking for and more for far cheaper even! Every year! Good Luck!

    • Mary Lahr Schier on June 21, 2018 at 1:31 am

      That is so true! We love all our local growers.

    • Jocee on June 15, 2020 at 5:54 pm

      I live in a suburb of St. Paul, MN. The Magnolia I planted last year budded this spring then nothing. No flowers. No leaves. Nothing. What happened?

  4. Lori H on December 11, 2018 at 6:46 pm

    We planted a magnolia tree/bush this spring, either a Royal Star or Merrill. Seems to be thriving.
    It is covered with pinkish large buds as of Nov-Dec. Should we do anything to protect the tree/bush? Does it need to be wrapped in burlap?

  5. Shannon Thomasser on June 18, 2019 at 5:36 pm

    Hello! Are there yellow magnolias that can grow in Minnesota? Thanks!

    • Mary Lahr Schier on June 20, 2019 at 2:09 pm

      There is a magnolia called ‘Elizabeth’ that has a creamy yellow flower. I’m not sure how available it is, but some nurseries list it on their websites.

    • Janet B on September 4, 2019 at 4:53 am

      I have a butterfly magnolia which produces yellow blooms. I purchased it at Bachmans about five years ago.

      • Nhia on March 27, 2022 at 11:04 pm

        Can a zone 5 saucer magnolia tree survive MN zone 4 weather? I really want one.

        • Mary Lahr Schier on March 28, 2022 at 1:58 pm

          It might, if you placed it in a slightly warmer microclimate.

  6. CJ on July 14, 2019 at 8:04 pm

    We have had a Merrill Magnolia (I think) for about 11 years and this summer it is
    emitting a sticky liquid all over some of it’s leaves and all the plants around it.
    It also has white spots all over the branches. Any ideas what this is and what to do
    about it????

    I live in Minnesota, so it is definately a hardy variety.

    • Lori Pichotta on October 9, 2019 at 8:06 pm

      I’ve had a Merrill Magnolia for 15 yrs. & I’ve never had that happen. You are positive the sticky yellow residue isn’t coming from a maple or other tree from above? Has it ever produced orange berries? Mine did last year & the birds or other critters made quite the mess going after the berries as they ripened.

    • Kathy R. on April 29, 2020 at 7:25 am

      Could this be scale? I don’t have a magnolia tree but I’ve been doing some research as I’d love to have one.

    • Jessica Shuster on January 31, 2022 at 2:31 pm

      Definitely scale.

  7. Lori Pichotta on October 9, 2019 at 8:00 pm

    I have many 6″ merrill magnolia trees in pots that I grew from seed. I would like to plant a few in the ground just to see how they do over winter. Should i cover the trees with a pail, pot or just cage? I’m concerned with snow drifts.

  8. Barb Didier on December 11, 2019 at 5:24 pm

    I live in Minnetonka and my magnolia needs some pruning at the bottom as the branches hang too close to the ground and I want to have a clearing around the base. When is the best time to prune magnolias in Minnesota?

    • Mary Lahr Schier on December 23, 2019 at 4:40 pm

      The best time to prune magnolias is after they flower in spring. At that point, you can shape the plant and still give it plenty of time to recover and set buds for next spring. Thanks for commenting!

    • Bill Jentz on July 27, 2022 at 6:37 pm

      I prune mine any time, especially in summer. You also have to prune the suckers out on the bottom branches. If you don’t, all the trees strength will go into the suckers. Suckers are the shoots that grow straight up from the bottom branches. If you don’t also the good branches will die off.
      My magnolia is about 35 ft high and 20 ft wide. I never have watered it. I didn’t know you had to.

  9. Alison H. on January 25, 2020 at 5:13 pm

    Is there a zone 4 variety of magnolia that gets the classic large glossy two toned leaves like a southern magnolia? All of the magnolia trees that I’m finding for Minnesota seem to be bold flowers and minimal foliage, but I would love to have a southern style magnolia tree full of the classic magnolia leaves to use in holiday decorations. Do those exist up here?

  10. Lu on March 21, 2020 at 1:04 am

    Are there magnolias for zone 3a?

    • Mary Lahr Schier on March 23, 2020 at 1:25 pm

      Even the hardiest magnolias are rated for USDA Zone 4. So you would need a microclimate or very protected site in zone 3 to grow magnolias.

  11. Christina on April 1, 2020 at 6:14 pm

    You mentioned not planting the Jane magnolia too close to the house. Is there anything about that particular variety that makes that location less ideal?

    • Mary Lahr Schier on April 1, 2020 at 6:22 pm

      Jane magnolias get fairly wide — like up to 12 feet. Too close to the house and you might risk branches rubbing against the house. Always check the mature width and height before choosing a foundation plant. Thanks for commenting.

  12. Crystal Berryman on July 29, 2020 at 4:04 pm

    I have an Ann magnolia that had a well established root system and stood about 5’ tall but it was uprooted and moved by a plumbing contractor because I needed underground plumbing/pipe repaired during a hot spell in July. When they dug it up 1/2 of the roots were not moved with the bush. I replanted it but all the leaves turned brown. Is it possible that it died. Should I rub the dead leaves off and just continue to water it hoping some life may appear. It’s now late July in MN. I hope you can give me some insight.

  13. Karen Glocke on August 30, 2020 at 8:38 pm

    I planted a magnolia tree early this summer. It seems to be doing well. But it has been sprouting buts like crazy. It is now almost September and one is just getting ready to open. Should I just let all these buds continue to develop or should I pinch them off so it is more winter ready? Am in Twin Cities are of Minnesota. Thanks.

    • Mary Lahr Schier on August 31, 2020 at 1:57 pm

      The buds you see forming are next year’s blooms, so I would not remove them. Occasionally, a spring blooming shrub will put out one or two blooms in fall. (I’ve had it happen with PJM rhododendrons.) Don’t worry about it. Here’s a bit more info on magnolias from the U of M Morris research center.

      • Randy on September 6, 2020 at 5:43 pm

        I live close to zone 3, (50 miles south from Duluth Mn.) but considered to be in zone 4 , what’s the best way to protect our Royal star for the winter..? Wrap in burlap, obviously but what about ground cover,…..kinds and depth,and……voles

  14. Lou Ann Fasching on September 5, 2020 at 9:58 pm

    September 5, 2020
    Our Magnolia tree has leaves that are curling up and some leaves have black areas. What should be done?

  15. Katherine on October 10, 2020 at 7:40 pm

    Our magnolia is growing beautifully large and need to trim its lower branches. Can I trim now before it’s leaves drop?

    • Mary Lahr Schier on October 13, 2020 at 3:20 pm

      If it’s just a branch or two, I think you’d be OK to do it now. If it’s significant pruning, the usual recommendation is to wait until spring.

  16. Janet Stanley on April 18, 2021 at 12:44 pm

    I planted a Royal Star Magnolia early summer last year. I see the buds, but have not seen any blooms yet. All the other Royal Stars in my neighborhood are blooming, is my Magnolia dead?

  17. Celeste Amara Finn on September 13, 2021 at 11:48 pm

    Can I plant a magnolia in the fall?

  18. Steve on June 30, 2022 at 3:12 am

    Please don’t plant squill! It’s an invasive nightmare. There are plenty of native spring ephemerals that will serve an aesthetic and ecological function. Prairie Moon is a good resource.

    • MSHS on July 1, 2022 at 3:53 pm

      Great tip – thanks, Steve.

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